Environmentalists: Feds ‘Rushing’ Coastal Plain Lease-sale; Chamber Hails Economic Benefits
Reaction in Fairbanks was mixed to Thursday’s announcement on the Trump administration’s rescheduling of lease sales for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. Responses by the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center show the range of those perspectives.
Chamber President and CEO Marisa Sharrah says the accelerated lease sale schedule is good news for Alaska. Because it could hasten development of the coastal plain, which would create jobs, boost state revenues and invigorate the slumping economy.
“An increase of production is good for state coffers,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Sharrah says if the Jan. 6 lease sales result in increased oil production, it also would help fill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is now operating at about only about half its capacity.
“It’s also good for the Trans-Alaska System,” she said. “It’s been running at very low levels for a numbers of years, and that makes that piece of infrastructure that’s critical to our state difficult to maintain.”
But Emily Sullivan with Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center says the lease sales would only make life harder for the Gwich'in and Inupiaq peoples who live in and around the coastal plain in the northeastern corner of the state.
“Arctic peoples’ lives are already in danger, due to a rapidly warming climate,” she said Thursday.
Sullivan says indigenous peoples in the region already must deal with such climate change impacts as the loss of sea ice and changing animal migration patterns. Especially the Porcupine caribou herd, a primary source of food for the Gwich'in.
“Indigenous peoples are at the front lines of climate change, and the most impacted. And the Arctic refuge oil-lease sales are projected to emit an additional 4 million tons of carbon dioxide,” said Sullivan, the center’s Arctic Program coordinator.
“It’s a terrible move for the climate, it’s a terrible move for Arctic people,” she added.
Sharrah says she’s confident that the federal Bureau of Land Management’s lease-sale process and the state’s regulators will ensure the well-being of the area’s indigenous peoples – and the environment.
“All of the impacts from projects are evaluated during that process,” she said. “and Alaska’s got a demonstrated history of having responsible resource development.”
Congress set aside the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain for exploration and possible oil and gas development when it created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960. Environmentalists have been fighting the industry’s efforts to exploit the coastal plain since. But a Republican-majority Congress authorized its development through a provision in the 2017 Tax Act.
Sullivan says BLM’s announcement that it was moving up the lease sale date shows the agency is more concerned about the oil industry than the area’s inhabitants and environment. She says it also gives the public less time to identify coastal plain tracts that shouldn’t be developed.
“The public is weighing-in,” she said, “they’re sending their comments saying not to sell leases on the coastal plain, and to protect parts of the coastal plain that are especially vulnerable.”
Sullivan says BLM’s surprise announcement also shows there was a political reason behind the decision.
“We see the Trump administration now rushing to get these lease sales completed before Trump leaves office and the Biden team transition,” she said.
Sharrah doubts that. And in any case she sees a positive outcome to the lease sales.
“I guess I’m not surprised that people would point to that,” she said. “But, again, this is a benefit for Alaskans.”
Sullivan says it’s now more important than ever for Alaskans to weigh in by Dec. 17 and nominate lands that should be made available – or not – during the upcoming lease sale.